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Power bills boost food bank ranks

Barrie Advance - October 30, 2002
by Julie DeBruin


Many of this city's low-income families spend most of their income, as much as 70 per cent of it, just keeping a roof over their heads, according Dennis Willer.

This means there is little left over for other necessities, such as buying food, which is often forced down the list of priorities when high utility bills are due, said the executive director of the Barrie food bank. "We're bracing ourselves for an increase (in clients)," he said, as the hydro rates are expected to remain high throughout the winter months. "People are clinging on by their fingers," he said. "They're scared."

Nov. 1, a day of the month that is normally quiet at the food bank because people have just received their social assistance cheques, was anything but quiet. "We were busy today," he said.

Last month, the food bank saw its numbers climb by 20 per cent over the same month last year.

A successful Thanksgiving food drive has stocked the shelves for now, but Willer is worried about what the colder months will do to their numbers as high utility bills come in.

When a bill comes due at Barrie Hydro and is not paid, customers will first receive a reminder to pay up, said the utility's general manager George Todd. "Our policy is, generally speaking, that if you don't pay, you don't get service."

Having said that, he added that the utility doesn't like to see people have their power shut off. "We prefer to work with the customer," said Todd. The company prefers it if a customer contacts them and explains why they cannot pay the bill and arrangements can be made to pay in installments. Todd said customers can also opt to switch to equal billing, which protects them from seasonally-inflated bills.

There will be help available again for people unable to pay their bills through a program called Share the Warm, a program that is supported by Barrie Hydro. Todd said brochures will be mailed out to all its customers over the next month describing the program and asking for support. The money raised through donations will be used to help people who are unable to pay their utility bill. These people apply for this funding, and if approved, the amount of their outstanding bill is sent directly to the utility to avoid having people's power turned off.

"Barrie Hydro has always been good to work with," said Willer, referring to getting help for clients with overdue bills. Not that that matters much for people who are on a fixed income and are already doing everything they can to cut costs, he added.

"Families have really taken one hit after another," said Willer. In addition to social assistance payments being reduced and child tax supplements being clawed back for Workfare recipients, they must also contend with high rents and now high utility costs. "It's all cumulative. I'm thankful that we have such a generous community," he said.

At Queen's Park last week, a private member's bill was presented that would prevent utilities from cutting off power during the coldest months of the year. The proposed No Freezing in the Dark Act was presented by NDP leader Howard Hampton, but private member's bill are seldom passed into law.

Todd believes that the move was politically motivated and feels all parties need to work together in the situation. Government and hydro officials maintain the summer's hotter than normal temperatures resulted in a spike in demand which has led to the current high rates. The province believes that hydro rates will stabilize over the year with deregulation.

The Tories have promised to issue rebate cheques in the summer after the first year of deregulation, but are now considering mailing them out in April or May. The government is also looking at other ways to help those individuals who are unable to pay their bills, but no details have yet been released.

A handful of Tory MPPs have asked the premier to take steps to freeze hydro rates.


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